People believe just about any kind of foolishness about the Middle Ages, probably because of cartoons or bad teacher or I don’t know what. The truth is we still use a lot of wisdom from that time. The most outrageous idea is that people were prudish in medieval times.
Pardon me while I guffaw!
The thing I hear from my students is “the church controlled everything back then”; guffaws are now eclipsed by my stunned look of disbelief and rolling eyes. Yeah, at a time when most people went to church once a year, somehow that institution ‘controlled’ them. Yes, there are manuals the church made for quizzing people at that annual confession. Bet that was really effective, eh? What the monks wrote up didn’t necessarily have any bearing on what really happened. And monks were no puritans either: why do you think they were always reforming the monasteries? Chaucer has his friar giving girls money so they can get married quick after he deflowers them.
We’re so prudish now that we can hardly conceive of how relaxed people were about sex back then. Plus it was well accepted that women were gagging for it most of the time. My own name sake, the medieval mystic (and first autobiographer in English literature) Margery Kempe had the worst time trying to control her sexy thoughts when she decided to become holy and was always being tempted by the flesh.
Marie de France told stories where the sex pretty much indicated when people were falling in love. It wasn’t a pure meeting of the minds — it was lust! Often achieved by magical means, but it was real enough — and the babies proved it.
“Lanval,” she said, “my friend, my dear,
I left my lands to come where you are;
To find you I have come so far!
Be valiant and courtly in everything,
And no emperor, count or king
Ever had joy or blessings above you;
For, more than any thing, I love you.”
He looks at her; he sees her beauty;
Love pricks him, strikes in him the spark–
Now his heart blazes in the dark.
Enough about the courtly stuff! Let me introduce you to a wonderful genre: the fabliau. Fabliaux were very popular: even Chaucer wrote some. They are short comic tales about sex and often shady dealings to get money: usually the clergy end up badly and the women come out on top! Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale is an excellent example: young Alisoun is married to the old carpenter, but she decides to let the student Nicholas become her lover after he grabs her by the crotch — after all, he’s a bit closer to her age. Meanwhile the parish clerk Absalon also wants her but she spurns him and tricks him into literally kissing her arse. Oh and her husband ends up a laughing stock with a broken arm when Nicholas’ plan for a little extra lovin’ time goes awry — so much so that he gets a hot piece of iron up his bottom! Alisoun’s the only one who gets off scot free!
Hmmm, maybe I need to write some fabliaux next after the fairy tales. My sweeter alter ego is writing Breton lais: they’re much more reserved.